Terence: A Guide to Selected Sources

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Nora Goldschmidt

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Publius Terentius Afer (‘Terence’) was a Roman comic playwright of the Republican period. A younger contemporary of Plautus, he is known for six surviving plays: Adelphoe (‘The Brothers’), Andria (‘The Girl from Andros’), Eunuchus (‘The Eunuch’), Heautontimorumenos (‘The Self-tormentor’), Hecyra (‘The Mother-in-law’), and Phormio (named after the play’s protagonist).

Two main ancient narrative sources on Terence’s life survive from antiquity, both of which come from the partially preserved commentary on his plays by the grammarian Aelius Donatus (4th century AD). Donatus quotes the lost earlier Life of Suetonius Suet./Donat. Vita Ter. (born AD 69), and continues with a short coda of his own Donat. Vita Ter.. In addition to these, we also have a brief account by St Jerome Jer. Chron. ad Ol. 155.3, who was probably drawing on Suetonius, too, and repeats details found in the Suetonian life (158 BC)] (see further Fantham 2004, Augoustakis and Traill 2013: 1-6). Although factually unreliable, these accounts – and Suetonius’ in particular – give us a fascinating glimpse into the vibrant biographical tradition that surrounded Terence in the centuries following his death (cf. Lowe 2008: 115). Suetonius cites, or takes issue with, an array of other scholars and poets, quoting from, among others, Porcius Licinus’ poem on the history of Latin poetry (probably late 2nd century BC), a hexameter poem by Cicero (Limon, ‘The Meadow’), and even verses by Julius Caesar (Courtney 1993: 83-92, 153-5).

Yet despite the plurality of sources available to Suetonius (or to Varro, whom he may be following: Fantham 2004: 21), his earliest predecessors still seem to have found an enigma in Terence (cf. Lowe 2008: 115, Fantham 2004: 22). Even the most basic ‘fact’ of Terence’s life – that the poet was a freed slave born in Carthage (Karthagine natus, Suet./Donat. Vita Ter. 1) – was probably reached by working backwards from his name: ‘Afer’ means ‘African’. Reports of the poet’s death, too, are arguably concocted biographical fictions: we learn that Terence vanished from Rome, either to Arcadia (a tradition repeated by Jerome) or to Asia, or – a story which Suetonius claims to be paraphrasing from the grammarian Quintus Cosconius – that he drowned at sea while ferrying home ‘one-hundred-and-eight plays adapted from Menander’, or else that he died of grief at the loss of his manuscripts (Suet./Donat. Vita Ter. 5). While the image of Terence’s death at sea surrounded by dramatic scripts adapted from Menander provides the perfect metaliterary end for a ‘demi-Menander’, as Cicero called him (Suet./Donat. Vita Ter. 5: Terence based many of his comedies on the Greek comic poet), the story is very likely to have been transposed from the biography of Menander himself, who was also reported to have drowned (Lefkowitz 2012: 111). Similarly, Suetonius’ anecdote that Terence read the Andria to his dramatic precursor Caecilius, who approved of it (Suet./Donat. Vita Ter. 2, repeated by Jerome), also seems to be a biographical narrative fashioned out of a literary-historical one: Caecilius, according to traditional chronologies, was dead before the Andria was in production (Augoustakis and Traill 2013: 50).

In addition to this, some of the facts in the Vita tradition seem, like those of many other poets, to be drawn from the ancient texts themselves. Terence prefaced his comedies with a series of self-reflexive dramatic prologues, which he often deployed as an opportunity for poetic self-positioning vis-à-vis contemporary critics. In particular, the poet complains of charges against him that certain ‘noble friends’ wrote his comedies, or else collaborated with him in writing them (Haut. 22-4; Ad. 15-21). This seems eventually to have evolved into a ‘well-known story’ (non obscura fama, Suet./Donat. Vita Ter. 3), recounted by Suetonius, that two of Terence’s elite Roman contemporaries, Scipio and Laelius, wrote, or helped to write, his comedies. Another prologue includes an underhand reference to Terence’s precursor, Caecilius (Ter. Hec. 1-27), which may have contributed to the Suetonian anecdote about the recitation to Caecilius. In the end, like many Latin poets, Terence himself seems to have kept posterity busy, sowing the seeds of his afterlife as an active partner in the construction of the myth of his own biography.


  • Augoustakis, A. and Traill, A. (eds.) 2013. A Companion to Terence. Malden, MA.
  • Beare, W. 1942. ‘The Life of Terence.’ Hermathena 59: 20-29
  • Courtney, E. 1993. The Fragmentary Latin Poets. Oxford.
  • Duckworth, G. 1990. The Nature of Roman Comedy (1st edn 1952). Princeton, NJ.
  • Fantham, E. 2004. ‘Terence and the Familiarisation of Comedy.’ In A. J. Boyle (ed.), Rethinking Terence, Ramus 33.1-2: 20-34.
  • Frank, T. 1933. ‘On Suetonius’ Life of Terence.’ AJP 54: 269-73.
  • Goldberg, S. M. 1986. Understanding Terence. Princeton, NJ.
    • 2005. Constructing Literature in the Roman Republic. Cambridge.
  • Kivilo, M. 2010. Early Greek Poets’ Lives. Leiden.
  • Lefkowitz, M. 2012 (1981). The Lives of the Greek Poets. Baltimore.
  • Lowe, N. J. 2008. Comedy. Cambridge.
  • Manuwald, G. 2011. Roman Republican Theatre. Cambridge.
  • Sharrock, A. 2009. Reading Roman Comedy. Cambridge.
  • Suerbaum, W. ( ed.) 2002. Handbuch der Lateinischen Literatur der Antike. Erster Band. Die archaische Literatur. Von den Anfängen bis Sullas Tod. Munich.